Sacred Fire: American Culture and Sanctified Violence

By John Spragge

Once, when an internet discussion touched on the problem of racism in American life, a member of the discussion group indignantly pointed out that Americans had fought a bloody civil war, costing the lives of 600,000 Americans, in order to free the slaves. He presented this bloodshed as unanswerable proof of the American commitment to freedom and equality. This rather startled me at the time; somewhat slow on the uptake, it took me some time to think through the implications of this statement.

The early government of the colony of Upper Canada forbade the importation of slaves in 1792. In one sense, Ontario can celebrate over 200 years as free soil. I do not believe anyone in Ontario remained in slavery by the time of Wiberforce's great abolition throughout the British Empire in 1838. And at that time, any slaveholders remaining in British North America obeyed the law with no violence and little argument. While only a tiny minority of the people in British North America had slaves, the slaveholders of the British West Indies had an economy similar to that of the American South; and they too accepted the end of slavery without violence, if not with good will.

The ancestors of many African Canadians regained their freedom with the abolition of slavery through the British Empire. Surely, that their liberty came through a law their oppressors accepted and obeyed does not make their freedom any less authentic and important. Americans and Canadians of African ancestry consecrate their freedom in their own lives, their own humanity. The moral authenticity of the graveyards from the civil war stems from the willingness of the young Americans buried there to dedicate their lives to freedom; it does not arise from their deaths. If the United States had accomplished emancipation through law rather than by the gun, that dedication would not have disappeared; who can tell how young men such as Colonel Shaw of Boston would have expressed their fire for freedom had they lived?

The same question arises over the revolutionary war. Americans fought a war for independence; Canadians achieved ours through legal and constitutional means. That does not make our laws less just, or less binding. It does not make our Parliament less free. Our votes count no less. Our achievement of self- government with minimal violence makes our story no less important, our freedom no less of a noble achievement, our determination to govern ourselves no less compelling.

Canada's choice of a non-violent path to freedom does not make freedom any less noble. Soldiers down the ages have laid down their lives in the defence of tyrants and slave regimes; that does not make tyranny or slavery any less evil.

The United States has seen its share of battle and war; its own share, and perhaps more. Given American history, the belief that war makes history seems natural. West Point boasts "much of the history we teach was made by students we taught." But a society takes grave risks when it goes a step further, and declares that war and violence not only make history, they consecrate history. Young men who die in battle do not necessarily show a more "pure" or "noble" devotion to freedom than the people who spend their lives at work to build a democratic nation. Respect for the sacrifice of the American soldiers of the revolutionary war need not entail contempt for the canny politicians on both sides of the border who built two great democracies.

In the wake of the too frequent outbreaks of rage powered by guns, we often hear calls to "ban the guns". I would suggest that before banning the gun, question the ideal. Violence does not consecrate the profane; does not make petty things noble. People bring moral authenticity to war; they do not take it from war. Indeed, when violence touches the noblest of causes, it inevitably clouds it with bitterness, cynicism, and tragedy. Honouring the sacrifice of young men who have died in wars must always draw a distinction between honouring the lives they gave, and honouring their manner of death. Celebrations of the sacrifices made in war should not fall into celebrations of violence, as in the well-known statement that the tree of liberty grows best when watered with "the blood of patriots and tyrants". Liberty only thrives when sustained by commitment; a commitment shown best in the hard task of making a democracy work.

With a history shaped by war and violence, culture can too easily take a "short cut", and celebrate the violence rather than the commitment it demonstrates. Many artists, historians, and politicians have fallen prey to the glamour of violence, and treated people whose killings and whose own violent deaths had no meaning as though killing or dying by itself gave meaning to life. From glorifying the sacrifice of men like Robert Gould Shaw and his 54th Massachusetts Regiment for their sacrifice, American culture has often degenerated into glorifying the outlaws of the American West, for no apparent reason than their possession of guns and willingness to violate other people.

Accepting such an attitude degrades both a culture, and the people who have made real sacrifices for it.

John Spragge, a Canadian computer programmer and pilot, currently sojourns in Ann Arbor Michigan.